NEW YORK -- BMW is definitely raising its game when it comes to battery-powered devices, launching the i3 electric city car and, in the very near future, unleashing the i8 hybrid upon the world. But those cars fall underneath the "i" brand, not BMW proper, and are decidedly unconventional besides. For those looking for a plug-in with more familiarity, BMW has created the Concept X5 eDrive.
As the name implies, it's just a concept at this point, basically a version of the company's X5 sporty SUV with an up-rated battery pack and a plug. The batteries sit beneath the cargo area in the back. The pack is bigger than that used in the company's current ActiveHybrid models, which cannot be charged externally, but thanks to some clever packaging and cooling, the floor in the back of the X5 has been raised by only a little over an inch. In other words, there's still plenty of room for luggage, golf clubs, dogs, and what have you.
Plugging in to a standard wall outlet will top up the system's batteries in about four or five hours. Make the investment in a Level 2 EV charger and that time is cut to under two hours. That'll be enough to get you roughly 20 miles driving on batteries alone, but BMW still has a lot of work to do before running this through any official range tests to generate official numbers. Likewise, BMW wouldn't quote any expected mileage figures.
To manage the charge, BMW has added a number of driving modes. The Max eDrive mode relies entirely on battery power and the 95-horsepower electric motor in the rear, which provides adequate performance for toddling around the city and in traffic but little else. That's why there's a second motor that sits beneath the hood: a turbocharged four-cylinder with 245 horsepower. In Max eDrive mode, this will be called into duty only if you put the accelerator to the floor. Otherwise, it works in closer harmony with the electric motor, the two trading off to deliver power through an eight-speed automatic transmission.
In our brief driving experience, the transition between the two was a bit abrupt, a moment of hesitation as the gas-powered internals fired up and took over. That felt slightly uncivilized, but remember this is just a concept, so we expect it to be far smoother in the final version. Once both motors were spinning, there was plenty of power -- something you might not otherwise expect from a relatively small four-cylinder. In Sport mode the big 'ute is properly peppy, with the steering and throttle response sharpened, delivering very satisfying responsiveness.
The SUV will be paired with an intelligent navigation system that, if you take the time to tell it where you're going, will chart out the route and determine the best use of any remaining battery power. If you have a high-speed run followed by a few miles of slow-speed traffic, for example, the car will automatically save power in the pack to ensure that you can get through the busier bits using minimal gas. Unfortunately, this system isn't working yet, but expect it to be there when the car eventually ships. (BMW wouldn't say when that might be, other than it won't be this year.)
Overall, the most important aspect of the Concept X5 eDrive is just how much it feels like a normal X5. Other than the somewhat abrupt transition between electric- and gas-powered modes, which we're sure will be ironed out in due time, there seem to be few compromises made in the name of driving efficiency. That is a very good thing.